Lessons of the Lal Masjid affair for Pakistan’s Islamic leaders and movement

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 19, 1428 2007-09-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 7, Sha'ban, 1428)

Some weeks after the tragedy of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, there remains widespread anger with the government of Pervez Musharraf, and disappointment with the failure of Islamic groups to offer effective opposition to it. Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) considers some of the lessons of the episode for the country’s Islamic movement.

The Lal Masjid tragedy, especially the cold-blooded murder of young students, both boys and girls, by Pakistani commandos who reportedly used phosphorous bombs against the Islamic centre in the heart of Pakistan’s capital, offers important lessons for the country’s Islamic movement. That most people expressed sorrow at the loss of life, but felt helpless to do anything about it, and that others blame whichever side they do not like, does not help much. It is important to understand the circumstances that led to this tragedy, and correctly analyse the assumptions made by those in charge of the madrassa, in order that such mistakes are not repeated.

It is depressing to note that many students and teachers at the madrassa harboured naive notions about the true character and role of the Pakistan army. After the commando operation, Shahid Masood, a television personality, narrated in a column published in the Urdu daily, Jang, an encounter he had had with one female student before the assault. She told him that Pakistani soldiers were “the soldiers of Islam” and that they would come and deal with the unruly behaviour of the police that had surrounded their complex. This student was among the first to be shot and killed by Pakistan’s “Islamic” commandos. Her innocence is touching but also dangerous, and points to the flawed assumptions of many otherwise committed Muslims in Pakistan. Equally simplistic was the assumption of the madrassa leaders that if they took a stand against the regime at a time when it was facing political difficulties, it would not be in a position to attack them; and that if it did, other Islamic parties and madrassas would come to their assistance.

Beyond these assumptions lies an even more disturbing thought pattern that has failed to grasp the true nature of the political system in Pakistan. Just because Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and its rulers have Muslim names, no-one should assume that they abide by any Islamic principles. After all, Imam Husain (ra) and his companions were not martyred by mushriks; those who carried out the massacre at Karbala were people with Muslim names who probably offered salah both before and after perpetrating the crime. There is no reason to believe that they did not also fast in the month of Ramadan and fulfil other basic Islamic obligations. The present-day Muslim rulers are much more removed from Islam, despite their Islamic credentials or pretensions, because they are subservient to the kuffar and dependant on them to stay in power.

There is another issue that often leads to confusion: the Muslims masses’ deep fascination with warriors. This has a long history. From the earliest days of Islam, Muslims have participated in great battles to advance the cause of Islam. Such brilliant military successes as the battles at Badr and Khayber, the liberation of Makkah, the courageous stand at Muatta, the Tabuk expedition, Ain Jalut and the liberation of al-Quds stand out as shining episodes in Muslim history. In almost every case, a small number of Muslims either withstood or defeated enemy forces many times larger and better equipped. In recent times, the Chechens and Hizbullah have given similarly brilliant accounts of themselves against immense odds. The essential feature of all these campaigns is that Muslims imbued with the spirit of imaan fought for the pleasure of Allah. They longed for martyrdom and their families took pride when they achieved it. They cared deeply for Muslim honour and dignity; indeed so committed were they to the teachings of Rasoolullah sallalaho alayh-e wa sallam, that they always refrained from attacking civilians in the enemy camp and from destroying trees, as he commanded. Today, by contrast, we see time and again Muslim armies guilty of atrocities against their own people—men, women and children—as shown by the Pakistan army’s role in the Lal Masjid episode and in the extended campaigns in Waziristan and Baluchistan.

Without exception, every contemporary Muslim nation state is the product, in one form or another, of Western imperialism. Where Muslim societies did not experience direct colonial rule, such as in the Arabian Peninsula, they were affected equally negatively by imperial power and influences in other forms. While Muslim societies are nominally independent today, their systems are entirely post- and neo-colonial in nature.

One must understand how this degeneration has occurred. The rot set in soon after the subversion of the khilafah into mulukiyyah, but the present state of affairs owes more to Muslims’ recent history. Without exception, every contemporary Muslim nation state is the product, in one form or another, of Western imperialism. Where Muslim societies did not experience direct colonial rule, such as in the Arabian Peninsula, they were affected equally negatively by imperial power and influences in other forms. While Muslim societies are nominally independent today, their systems are entirely post- and neo-colonial in nature. Only in Iran have Muslims successfully overthrown the yoke of colonialism through an Islamic Revolution.

This is what the Muslim masses of British India had expected to happen when they supported the Pakistan movement decades earlier. But Pakistan failed to undergo such a transformation at birth, largely because the leaders of the Pakistan movement were thoroughly secularized and had little or no contact with their own people; in fact, they regarded the masses of their country with the same disdain as the departing colonial masters. In Pakistan’s 60-year history, the only real change that has occurred is in the levels of various types of corruption, which have reached dizzying proportions; in effect, every level of incompetence has been turned into a virtue. The gulf between the rulers and the ruled has never been wider.

Those struggling to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state make a fundamental error by assuming that this can be achieved by operating within the existing secular system. They assume that since the masses are Muslims and long for Islam, they will automatically vote for Islamic parties that call for an Islamic state. This assumption has repeatedly been proved wrong, but far from questioning their own assumptions, Islamic parties simply blame the masses for not being “sufficiently Islamic”.

Those struggling to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state make a fundamental error by assuming that this can be achieved by operating within the existing secular system. They assume that since the masses are Muslims and long for Islam, they will automatically vote for Islamic parties that call for an Islamic state. This assumption has repeatedly been proved wrong, but far from questioning their own assumptions, Islamic parties simply blame the masses for not being “sufficiently Islamic”. What these parties fail to grasp is that the people do not regard them as Islamic; they understand better than the leaders of Islamic parties that the system in Pakistan is oppressive and alien to the ethos of Islam. When representatives of “Islamic” parties sit alongside secular politicians, most of them feudal lords, in Parliament, they confer legitimacy upon an illegitimate system. In these circumstances, the people make the only choice possible: they minimize their losses by voting for whichever secular party they believe will serve their interests best. Only if the Islamic parties had operated as an Islamic movement, outside the system, would Pakistan’s masses have had a clear alternative to the status quo.

One more point is worthy of note before we consider the developments surrounding the saga of the chief justice of Pakistan in the last few months. Far from acting as a movement, Islamic parties have caused deep divisions in their society. There are parties that are completely sectarian, thereby alienating large numbers of people not subscribing to their sectarian line. Similarly, the vast majority of people in Pakistan do not participate in elections at all; turnout is seldom more than 25-30 percent. Any party that gets the votes of 40-50 percent of this low turnout, in a crowded field of scores of political parties, forms the government. In other words, no government in Pakistan has ever ruled with more than about 12-13 percent of popular support. It is little wonder that governments are always defensive and vulnerable from the moment they enter the corridors of power, more concerned about the demands of ambitious politicians looking only for personal gain, or by generals who consider themselves above the law and dictate State policy by strong-arm tactics, than about the interests and aspirations of the country’s ordinary people.

Let us contrast the lack of support for the Lal Masjid madrassa with that given to the chief justice by Pakistanis. On March 9, when Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry refused to be bullied into resigning, as demanded by General Pervez Musharraf, he did not know that he would touch a sympathetic chord with the masses. His cause was first taken up by the 80,000-strong legal community, which not only mobilized its own members but also tapped into the lava of popular resentment that had built up against the prevailing political order. It is also interesting to note that the legal fraternity kept a clear distance from the politicians, whom they rightly perceive as simply trying to cash in on the chief justice saga to ride their way to power. The Pakistani people seemed to share the lawyers’ disdain for political parties and their leaders. They supported the chief justice because he was seen as standing up to Musharraf and being genuinely concerned about delivering justice for ordinary people.

We should also consider the conduct of Islamic parties further in order to understand the reasons for their repeated failures. Some points have already been discussed. All these parties proclaim that they wish to usher in an Islamic socio-political order patterned on the first Islamic state, established by none other than the messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, in Madinah. They claim to take the teachings of the Qur’an, and the Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet (saws), as their guides, rightly regarding the establishing of the Islamic State as a divine command (al-Qur’an: 3:102; 5:44-45, 5:47; 12:40), and the the Prophet (saws) as the perfect embodiment of these divine commands, whose Sunnah and Seerah we are expected to follow (4:59; 4:80). In practice, however, their strategies are very different to those followed by the Prophet.

“Were they to put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not stop proclaiming the message of Islam until such time as Allah made it triumphant or I perish in the process.” The Prophet (saws) did not jump at the opportunity to implement Islam through the existing power structures and institutions, as the leaders of so many “Islamic” parties are wont to do today; perhaps they think they know more than the Prophet (saws), nastaghfirullah min dhalik.

In Makkah, the Quraysh chiefs tried both torture and inducements to persuade the Prophet (saws) to tone down his criticism of their jahili practices. They offered to make him their leader provided he would compromise a little in his condemnations of them and the established order. In one particularly revealing episode, when they went to the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib in the hope that he would persuade his nephew to stop condemning their gods, the Prophet’s reply to his uncle was forthright. “Were they to put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not stop proclaiming the message of Islam until such time as Allah made it triumphant or I perish in the process.” The Prophet (saws) did not jump at the opportunity to implement Islam through the existing power structures and institutions, as the leaders of so many “Islamic” parties are wont to do today; perhaps they think they know more than the Prophet (saws), nastaghfirullah min dhalik.

Far from pleading his case before the gathering of Makkan notables at Dar al-Nadwa, the equivalent of a national assembly or parliament today, the Prophet (saws) established the Dar al-Arqam, where Muslims assembled separately to discuss their affairs. The Prophet (saws) understood the nature of the environment in Makkah well; instead of working through it, and so becoming a part of it, he set out to demolish it completely. By contrast, the leaders of Islamic parties today have failed to grasp the true nature of the system in Pakistan, and thus repeatedly suffer the consequences of their faulty thinking. This is equally true of the Lal Masjid administrators, who had worked closely with successive military regimes. That a previous military ruler chose to emphasise his Islamic attachment was no more than the systemic need of that time, just as brazen secularism is viewed as the need for today; in both cases, the rulers owed their primary allegiance to the USA. The military in Pakistan, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, has institutional interests for which it will kill as many of its people as it considers necessary to safeguard its own interests.

The sooner leaders of Islamic parties recognise these failures and the reasons for them, the sooner they will be able to offer a clear and genuine alternative to the existing order. It is essential that they abandon the divisive party approach and work instead as an Islamic movement, an inclusive method that is the proper vehicle for bringing about change in Muslim societies. Without such clarity of thought and action, they will continue to drift in the wilderness of the politics of opposition, instead of offering genuine Islamic leadership to Pakistan’s long-suffering people.

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